Special Note: This material once comprised a chapter in my book entitled Discipling (1997). This longer book was condensed into a shorter version called The Power of Discipling – now in its second (slightly longer) edition. A number of chapters from the original book were omitted in the shorter one. I added back two of these chapters in a condensed combination (about group discipling and family discipling) in the second edition of the shorter version. Another chapter omitted in the original is this one, now published in a standalone article. It is in some ways “deeper” than the material in other chapters of the book, being more theological in nature. Newer disciples may find it more difficult to understand, but along with more mature disciples, all will find it highly stimulating and challenging if read carefully. In re-reading it now, over twenty years after I wrote it originally, it is hard to believe how relevant it is right now compared to its earlier setting. Our churches and our members need it – badly!
God is a God of order and harmony. The various aspects of his revelation to us fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. He does not arbitrarily tell us that something is good for us or that he wants a kind of behavior from us when it does not in fact fit beautifully with other realities. What is good for us always grows out of who God is, who we are, and what it takes to live together in love and harmony. So it is with discipling.
Close relationships in general and discipling relationships in particular fit perfectly with what we know about God and about man. These relationships first of all find their basis in the nature of God himself. The vital need for these relationships is further seen by looking at the nature of man. Then finally we can look at the nature of the church that God dreamed to establish, and we can see how essential these relationships are to that church. If we properly understand God, man and the church, there is nothing surprising about our need for the kind of relationships we are describing.
The Nature of God
What do we know about God that would lead us to anticipate that discipling relationships would be a part of his plan for us? Several of these “theological” foundations come to mind.
First, God himself is all about relationships. Even though we intellectually limited creatures cannot really comprehend the Person of God, we do know that he has revealed himself as a Father, Son and Spirit. This one God is thus wholly relational by definition. Of course, the concept of the trinity is beyond our understanding, but this insight from Lanier will perhaps help to clarify.
“We do not affirm that one God is three Gods; we affirm that there is but one infinite Spirit Being, but within that one Spirit essence there are three personal distinctions, each of which may be, and is, called God; each capable of loving and being loved by the others; each having a distinct, but not separate, part to play in the creation of the universe, and in the creation and salvation of man.”[i]
Since God is somehow “Three within One,” then our capacity for relationships grows out of the very essence of his nature. This fact provides the ground zero basis of theology behind all spiritual relationships. The biblical definition of Deity is the very foundation of relationships. And if our relationships are to be patterned after who he is, do we need comment about the required closeness of spiritual relationships? Yet, where are the relationships within religious groups that can be accurately described as “deep” and “close”¾patterned after the nature of God? It would certainly be challenging to find such relationships in the average church that meets on Main Street, USA!
I don’t doubt that exceptions to this sad rule exist, but when they do, it will be in spite of the nature of the church group involved, not because of it (if my experiences in other churches is any indication). Deep, close relationships cannot be developed in large-group settings, on which most churches totally rely. The more intimate the setting (the fewer people), the more intimate the relationship can become¾but only if the parties involved are committed to such development. Otherwise, our closest friendships will be no closer than a good “golfing buddy” relationship.
Second, God in his very nature has a heart that moves toward relationships. John simply wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Old Testament abounds with passages which show that the heart of God is full of love. Psalm 32:10 is typical: “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him.” His love is variously described as faithful, unshakable, unfailing and steadfast. God’s heart is full of divine, agape, unconditional love, and love always has to do with relationships. What is found in God clearly shows us what needs to be found in us.
I may have thought I “fell” in love with my wife Theresa, but I can assure you that we did not build our relationship on some euphoric feelings which caused our hearts to soar and even skip a few beats when we were at close quarters! It took time together, sharing our hearts, doing things as a team and working through all kinds of differences to establish a true agape relationship. Agape is the Greek word used most often for “love” in the NT which means “a commitment to another person at all costs for their good, not our own.” My relationship with Theresa was not simply doing “what comes naturally.” Who could claim that the qualities described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 are “natural” or accidental? “Falling in love” can only refer to the eros type of love, which has to do with physical attraction or perhaps the phileo type, the warm affection of a friendship. In a marriage developing an agape relationship takes intent, a plan, self-denial, sacrifice, time and just plain old hard work.
Did it not take all of those things for God to build that kind of relationship with us? Now he wants us to have this kind of relationship with each other. But what settings most naturally “grow” such closeness? While you will find it difficult to build such close relationships with hundreds, you can do it with the smaller numbers. You cannot learn to love everyone without first learning to love someone. As we are helped to learn how to build one such relationship, we will be able to duplicate it with others as time goes by (just like a baby begins with the parents and branches out to others in the family). With whom in the church do you share this type of relationship? Without the plan and intent, it will not happen, which is the logical reason that discipling relationships are so vital. The more we learn to love, the more we will become like God; and the more we are like him, the more people we can love more deeply.
Third, God’s nature of rewarding certain qualities logically makes discipling relationships the object of his graciousness. Two of the qualities he rewards most are faith and humility. He is less patient with pride and unbelief than with many other sins, and conversely, he takes special delight in those of his creatures who possess faith and humility. But what does this have to do with discipling relationships? A great deal, to be sure.
Faith and Humility
Allowing someone to disciple you requires faith. Our prideful and independent natures say, like some two-year-olds, “I can do it all by myself.” We have confidence that we know best and that we do not need input or guidance. We naturally distrust others who would get too involved in our lives. We fear that if we are not independent and self-preserving that our lives will not end up in a good place. But God says something different. He says we will be much better off getting counsel, advice, guidance and even rebukes from others. To let that happen, you must show more faith in God’s plan than in your own knowledge and intuition.
But do you remember the admonition given to Christian wives in 1 Peter 3:1-6? They were to trust God to work through even their non-Christian husbands to lead them. And the model for their submission was given in the previous chapter where Jesus trusted God to work even though the Herods and Pilates of the world (1 Peter 2:21-23). The idea that God cannot work through a well-intentioned brother or sister who disciples us is a faithless idea indeed. And without faith, we can neither please God (Hebrews 11:6) nor be blessed by him (James 1:6-8).
What about the quality of humility and discipleship? To place ourselves in the hands of an older brother or sister in the family requires a great deal of humility. And the nearer we are to that older sibling in age and maturity level, the greater the challenge. Think of the situations in physical families where the older kids baby-sit the younger. The less the age difference, the greater the challenge. How humble are you in the family of God?
When we first moved to Boston in January of 1988, Theresa and I were asked to disciple Tom and Sheila Jones (long-time editors of Discipleship Publications International). After several months, Tom expressed appreciation for the discipling relationship and made some nice comments about how much I had helped him. His humility humbled me, for we are near the same age (I know I’m a few years older, Tom, but not very many!) with much the same experiences in ministry. In fact, he had been more in touch for a much longer time with many of the principles of discipleship than I had. Yet, in humility he was happy to be discipled by me. A truth dawned on me that day. I expressed it to him in terms similar to this: “Tom, I think I understand why discipleship works so well. It is not because all of the advice and direction given is the very best available; it is because to be discipled by another demands humility, and God blesses humility. It wouldn’t matter in our case whether I discipled you or you discipled me¾what really matters is the level of humility which determines how much God is able to bless.” (Of course Tom provided me with much helpful discipling, and still does!)
On March 16 of that year, after many talks and prayers, I advised Tom to step out of the ministry position he was in because of the physical and emotional effects of having multiple sclerosis. I wasn’t sure what he would be able to do, but I had become convinced of what he could not do any longer. His immediate response was one of humility. He started working in the church office, and after several years, God raised him up to be the editor of a fast-growing and widely influential publishing company. His influence far exceeds what it did in earlier years, and only eternity itself will reveal the extent of that influence. How did all of that happen? Great discipling? I would like to say “yes” since I was in a “one another” relationship with him in those day, but we now know better, don’t we? It was Tom’s humility that caused God to abundantly bless him.
You see, the material in this book is not some dry, dusty theory written by a theologian wearing a clerical collar. It is written by a disciple who disciples others and is himself discipled by others, and who has discovered that the answers in the Bible do work in the laboratory of life. Because God is God, discipleship works, and because his Word is irrevocable, we cannot receive the quantities of the blessings which he longs to shower on us until and unless we practice what he has preached!
The Nature of Man
What about man’s nature makes discipling relationships essential? Of course, the Bible teaches that we are to have them, which makes them essential. But God as our Designer and Creator prescribed in his Word everything which exactly corresponds to our nature and its needs. Why then, did he prescribe discipleship?
Two Potentials to Develop
First, since he is made in God’s image, man has tremendous potential for relationships. Just as Deity is three in one and one in three (in some totally inexplicable way!), man is designed to be bound to others like himself in the closest of bonds. Our nature will always be crying out for incredibly deep relationships with other humans, whether or not we are aware of it. And usually we are not aware of it, are we? At the earliest stages of life, these inherent longings are stifled and redirected (or worse), with the result being that most adults are not remotely aware of their relationship needs or potentials.
Why is it that we feel and say things at times of tragedy (the death of a loved one, for example) that we aren’t normally aware of and certainly don’t express? Where do those amazingly deep feelings come from¾sentimentality gone awry? Absolutely not. The emotions and expressions at such times are quite genuine, but until something breaks through our shells, we just don’t let them surface. In fact, we most likely don’t even know they are there. Especially is this true of unreal men (real men are that very small minority who are real¾vulnerable and honest about who they are!).
As a young man, I knew I needed a wife, but I didn’t have much of a clue about how much I needed real relationships with other guys. Honestly, I am not often in touch emotionally with those needs even now, except when something pierces the protective coating (of fear and selfishness, I think) around my heart. However, intellectually I know what I really need, and I am trying to become more like God in developing deeper relationships. You male readers are going to have to think about this one for a while to really get it, but keep trying—your wife or girlfriend or co-leader or sister friends will be grateful to you if you do get it, to say nothing of how God will feel when you start functioning more like he designed you to function! Without question, discipling relationships with brothers have helped me far more than any other types of relationships to grow in being a deeper, more loving man.
Second, another potential we have as those made in God’s image is our creative ability. We have the capacity and the inner drive to create. We may exercise this drive in careers, hobbies or other avenues, but our inner prompting toward creativity is actually aimed at reproducing ourselves in the lives of other people. Why is it that even in our self-focused society the large majority of us want to have children? Simply because they are so cute and cuddly when they are little? Hardly. The most naïve person has figured out that babies eventually become teenagers. And the thought of raising teens in our dangerous world scares responsible parents and potential parents enough to make them soberly count the cost before embarking on the trail of family development. Why then, do we still have such a deep-seated desire to reproduce? Because we have an inborn drive to create something that will outlast us!
Discipling fulfills this need more than anything else with the exception of parenting. Did not Jesus say to go “make disciples” and then train them to become like him (Matthew 28:19-20)? To pour our lives into others is to expend our creative “juices” in the most rewarding way possible, reproducing our lives in the lives of those who will make a real difference in time and in eternity. What kind of legacy will you leave behind when you die? Most people will leave very little that really matters, and the most successful in the eyes of the world will leave some business with their name on it! What a horrible waste of creativity. Just imagine someone who knows you describing you a week after you die. “Well, he made lots of money, lived in this fine house, drove this expensive car, and founded a multi-million dollar business.” SO WHAT? WHO CARES? What a hollow reason for existing on this planet! Never give up your life for anything that death can take away!
On the other hand, what if you were a disciple making disciples: How would you then be described? “He loved God with all his heart and he taught his family, friends and scores of others to do the same. On the Day of Judgment, only God will be able to show all the influence exerted on many lives by this dear brother.” This disciple understood the basic spiritual value system, but unlike many religious people, he also understood the true purpose of discipleship—reproducing Christ-like qualities and values in others.
What does Scripture have to say about such desire to create or reproduce? Paul wrote: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Galatians 4:19). “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Many similar passages could be noted, but these are sufficient to make the point. By sharing Christ and by pouring his life into new disciples, Paul was bearing spiritual children. God has stamped on our hearts the need to create, the need to make a difference and leave a legacy. Discipling fits our need: It allows us live a life where our influence outlives us in the most significant way. Without it, our potential for creativity will be squandered on something transitory and valueless.
Two Weaknesses to Offset
Our potential makes discipling vital but so do our human weaknesses. For one thing, we tend toward blindness about ourselves. Without looking in a mirror or appealing to another person’s view, we can’t tell if we have egg on our face or not. This is true both physically and spiritually. God’s word is one type of mirror (James 1:22-25) and close spiritual friends are yet another, functioning as our “eyes” to help us see ourselves as we actually appear. At the risk of sounding a bit blasphemous, the Word alone will not provide us with the complete picture of ourselves. There is nothing wrong with Scripture, mind you. It is just that we read it sometimes through our distorted lenses. We need help seeing ourselves—honestly.
When I moved to Boston many years ago, my view of myself was distorted. But thankfully, for the very first time, I was being discipled by other men. I will never forget a leader’s discipleship group of men at the home of one of my disciplers, Wyndham Shaw. In that group I was given input regarding my critical edge. Of course I knew that I was very outspoken and direct, but I thought that only demonstrated my amazing honesty and ability to see people clearly! I actually told them something like that, but they didn’t buy it. When asked for the evidence behind their evaluation, they had only to repeat some of the statements I had made that night in the group. Those same statements coming out of their mouths sounded sharp, abrasive and unloving. Their loving input cut to the innermost part of my being and hurt terribly. But the pain was like that inflicted by spiritual surgeons performing a life-saving operation, whose scalpel was the sharp sword of the Spirit (Hebrews 4:12).
My picture of myself wasn’t yet quite clear. I had lived with my sinful nature for a long time, and my image of myself was still out of focus. Shortly after the discipleship group described above, I had a discipling time with another person while walking in his neighborhood talking about the ministry and related items. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, he said something that reminded me of my recent spiritual critique. His statement was little more than a passing comment, but now my antennas were up. I was becoming more aware of my weaknesses, so I asked what he meant by the brief comment. He seemed quite willing to elaborate! A few minutes prior, he had asked me about an evangelism seminar I had just attended, and I tried to give him a full description of both its strong and weak points. He explained that he had just received a similar evaluation from another brother who had attended, and although both of us mentioned both the positives and the negatives, he was left with two different impressions of the overall quality of the seminar. From the other brother’s description, he thought that it must have been great, but from mine, that it had been pretty mediocre.
Wow! The scalpel was out again and my self-image was bleeding again. By that night I thought I was about to have a heart attack—weak, dizzy, chest pains. This physical distress gave way to spending three days in bed with the flu. Was I really sick? Well, yes, with the flu, but thankfully not with a heart problem (physically). Why was I hit with the psychosomatic heart problem and the actual illness of influenza? Because of the major emotional hit of seeing myself more clearly than I had ever seen myself. How did I feel at that time? Devastated. How do I feel about it now? Unbelievably grateful for disciples who were willing to be honest with me!
Most people in the world never experience being discipled, and they simply do not change once their adult character is developed. When I visit old friends who are not involved in discipleship (though they may be religious), I know exactly what to expect of them. They remain the same year after year, with the same character sins and personality quirks. On the other hand, I have changed remarkably because of discipling. My blindness has given way to sight, and with the help of others, the man God designed me to be has emerged more and more (and the work on me continues).
After the discipling described above, I came to the rather obvious conclusion that I did not see myself as I really was, and I decided to take the challenging and narrow road of humility. I asked those brothers who had given me the godly critiques (along with many others in my life) to point out quickly and clearly all such ungodly qualities as they saw them appear. They did (and do), gently and lovingly, and my life has soared with eagles as a result. We need to be discipled—badly.
A Spiritual Second Law of Thermodynamics
A second weakness of our nature with which we need help is our strong tendency to turn away from the spiritual to the worldly. Something much like the second law of thermodynamics is evident in our personal lives: Order gives way to disorder; spiritual strength to weakness; resolve to doubt; conviction to sentimentality; righteousness to sin. Surely we don’t need much proof of this one, do we? We can look at David, Solomon, Moses, Peter, or just at ourselves in the mirror. The Hebrew writer quoted these words from Psalm 95: “Their hearts are always going astray” (Hebrews 3:10). In the original context, the Psalmist was describing the faithlessness of those who wandered in the wilderness for forty years. However, note how the Hebrew writer applies it to Christians:
“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12-13).
What was the antidote for this strong tendency toward going astray? Discipleship of the daily variety. Now who in the church is going to encourage you daily, if not someone specifically responsible for doing so? We will have more to say about the whole process of discipling relationships, but I have personally never seen this one passage obeyed by a majority in any church I have ever been a part of before coming to a discipling ministry. And now I am not seeing it much anymore here, to be totally frank!
The Bible frequently describes humans as being like sheep—usually sheep who have gone astray. There’s a good reason for that comparison: Sheep are notoriously dumb. They wander off and do stupid things which endanger their lives. So do we, and therefore we need all of the help we can get! We simply cannot afford to look at passages such as Hebrews 3:12-13 as containing optional commands. Discipleship, as described quite plainly in this passage, cannot be ignored if God is to be pleased and our spiritual lives protected!
The Nature of the Church
If you were to describe the nature of the church, what would you say? How do you think most religious people would describe it? Picture a woman going to the most popular type of church in the area in which I lived at the time (Boston). I chose to describe a woman for two reasons. One, they seem to be more naturally attuned to the spiritual side of life; and two, most traditional types of churches have far more women members than men. This average church attendee arrives only a few minutes before the service is scheduled to begin. As she comes into the sanctuary foyer, she might or might not greet other worshipers. She thinks that it’s nice to be friendly, and should she meet anyone she knows, she would exchange pleasantries for a minute or two.
But now she must hurry into the sanctuary and find her pew. As she awaits the clergymen’s entry, she mediates quietly yet intently. You can almost picture a vertical shaft of light connecting her to heaven. After the fairly brief service, she quietly leaves the sanctuary, goes to her car and drives home. Perhaps she exchanged a greeting or two leaving the building, but she has done what she came to do—spend time focused on God in the midst of her busy life. Therefore, she leaves feeling much better for having come. She has been raised to view church attendance as a spiritual duty, a moral responsibility, and after having fulfilled this spiritual obligation, she returns to her mostly “secular” world. But she feels spiritually cleansed, for she has done what she believes to be right before God.
Now, I’m not trying to be critical here; I’m just trying to describe the religious reality of most of our modern society. Several observations from the illustration are in order. First, religion is seen as a very important part of life, but really only a small part. It is a slim slice of the pie, in terms of time spent, while the other “slices” (job, family, entertainment) may be much larger. Spirituality is a segment of life, but it is an isolated segment. Second, religion is mainly vertical in nature, an experience with the Divine, and other people are an incidental part of it.
Many faithful churchgoers have virtually no relationships in their congregation, and they certainly have no relationships which remotely resemble those we are calling discipling relationships. Third, the atmosphere of a religious assembly is very quiet and “reverent.” I have attended funerals at some of these kinds of churches, and occasionally arrived early enough to stand in the back of the building to observe the last part of the regular church service. I honestly could tell little difference in the atmosphere of the regular service and the funeral service.
Is that what the Bible teaches about the nature of the church? Folks, we are talking different planets or galaxies here. The church described in the New Testament does not remotely resemble what has become the norm for churches in our day. Let’s just consider the three observations mentioned above in light of the Bible’s description of church. First, religion is not simply a part of life—it is life. It is not a slice of one’s weekly pie—it’s the whole pie. Consider just this one passage:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Our lives are everyday sacrifices to God, and that living sacrifice is described as “spiritual worship.” The purpose of attending a church service is not simply a coming together “to worship;” we come to worship together. In other words, we don’t worship only at a church service; we worship every day, for our whole lives are worship, biblically understood. And one key reason our lives can continue to be worship is because of the spiritual relationships we must develop and maintain every day with people in and out of the church.
Second, religion was never intended to be vertical only, or even mostly vertical (man and God). It is quite horizontal at the same time, uniting us with others in the church. Even a casual reading of the account of the beginning of the church will provide proof positive that the church was a family (Acts 2:36-47). If I am a son of God, then other sons and daughters of God are by definition my brothers and sisters. A one sentence greeting in a church foyer doesn’t quite equate with family relationships! Because we are a part of the body of Christ, “each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5) and “its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).
The New Testament is replete with “one another” and “each other” responsibilities (mentioned in these phrases scores of times and in other words scores more). If we are family, we must function as family. In a church setting, where members may be quite scattered geographically, there must be some kind of plan for the organization and function of the group, and because of the preeminence of love in Christ’s group (John 13:34-35), the organization and function reflect a focus on relationships as described in the Bible. The family nature of the church demands discipleship as an integral part of its life. (For those who resist organization and structure in God’s spiritual family, do you also resist in your physical family? If so, your children are going to face a rough future.)
Third, the atmosphere in the church should be like that found in a family. Acts 4:32 gives us an intimate glimpse of the early church: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Certainly this sounds like family, and family metaphors used in connection with the church abound in the New Testament. No less than five NT letters talk about disciples greeting each other with a holy kiss or a kiss of love. Church assemblies should be much more like family reunions than funeral services.
Discipling relationships fit with the biblical church like a hand in a glove. Everything about the relationships we are describing enrich the church and help her to be all God planned her to be. Such one another relationships are not contrived by man, nor are they optional. Just as biblical morality finds its basis in the nature of God and the needs of man, so the close spiritual relationships found in discipleship grow out of God’s triune nature and man’s need. Without discipleship, church members become lukewarm, churches stagnate and entire societies die. In America, we are in that downward spiral and picking up speed. The only thing that can turn the tide is a return to biblical discipleship, which alone can produce disciples radical enough to be the leaven, light and salt of God—and to once again be used by him to turn the world upside down in a good sense! (Acts 17:6, King James Version).
[i] The Timeless Trinity by Roy Lanier, page 46.